Sensationalism, morality and the media

As submitted to The Daily Maverick

There is a difference between exposing hypocrisy for the sake of satisfying the public’s desire for scandal (thereby perhaps increasing newspaper sales), and doing so in a way that makes the hypocrisy part of a larger story. Much over the weekend coverage of Malema and Mbalula’s various indiscretions seemed to prefer the former, leaving at least this reader with the question: Why should I care?

It’s not obvious that we should expect moral virtue from political leaders – and even if we were to do so, we’d first need to agree on what those virtues are or should be. Who Mbalula has sex with is not my business, nor is it something that should be. Unless, of course, the Minister’s choice of sexual partner entails some direct impact on his credibility or on consistency between his words and deeds.

If we believe Mbalula himself, he was separated from his wife at the time of his liaison with Joyce Molamu, so it’s not even clear that he has contravened the standards he appeals for others to follow. Members of the public might nevertheless consider him a hypocrite, and this will no doubt complicate his attempts to position himself as the next ANC secretary-general.

But until Stephen Grootes discussed Malema and Mbalula in these pages, the liaison – rather than any of its potential implications – was the story. Likewise with Malema. It should be no surprise to any of us that he’s a far wealthier man than many of his supporters, and that he’s more likely to have friends who host R10m parties. Yet another example of the lack of consistency between his rhetoric and his actions is not, in itself, front-page news.

The timing of such a party and the way in which it dilutes the force of the Youth League march against poverty can be. But as was the case with the Mbalula story, the media focus was more on rubbing his nose in this apparent evidence of hypocrisy (notably also tainted evidence, in that the business class flights and accommodation were apparently sponsored by the groom).

Outrage and sensation might be effective ways to sell copy, but they do little good in fostering a society that welcomes debate, and is able to engage in it. There seems little reason to believe that these stories will do anything other than entrench existing positions, where either M&M are being victimised by some white media cabal, or are untrustworthy demagogues.

We get the society we deserve, in that we are that society and it takes on the forms we encourage. As someone said on Twitter over the weekend, what the public is interested in is not equivalent to the public interest – and it’s the latter that gives newspapers licence to broadcast what would otherwise be details of someone’s private life.

Where those details are not contextualised as part of a story that is in the public interest, such as succession battles in Manguang, the press is not only feeding our appetite for sensation, but also starts taking on the role of moral authority and watchdog. Feeding our appetite for sensation is the job of the tabloids – not of the few variably-respectable local newspapers we have access to.

And neither being a moral authority, nor policing whatever version of morality is concocted is their proper role. The line between reporting on the news and aiming for objectivity – or at least making your biases clear if you’re not interested in objectivity – and trying to regulate society has become increasingly blurred.

For this reason alone, the extensive overlap between LeadSA and some of our media is problematic. If we were to discover that a particular LeadSA campaign is founded on poor evidence, or that a representative of LeadSA was somehow corrupt, are the chances of reading about these matters in an Independent Group newspaper at all diminished by their affiliation with LeadSA? I’d guess the answer to be yes. But I’d also guess that if this sort of event were to come to pass, that we’d see much crowing from the competition, and very little analysis that tracks something we could describe as being in the public interest.

And where the media endorse this sensationalism by practising it, we cannot be surprised to find citizens thinking they should care. Not only care about details that are stripped of context and meaning, but also care so much for their own hyperventilations that they think their worldviews should be enforced on the rest of us. A recent example of this can be found in complaint laid against an advertisement for Axe deodorants, where a single viewer convinced the ASA that it was offensive enough to require being taken off the airwaves.

That the ASA were convinced by this complaint is mystifying, as Pierre de Vos has pointed out ( What is perhaps more perplexing still is how they can proceed from here, having set the bar for offence so low. Every advertisement that includes images of an attractive man or woman could be described as sexist, and if we pretend to be offended enough (or sadly, actually feel offended enough), will the advertisement be pulled? Or how about those Fatti’s & Moni’s ads that so offend us Pastafarians, in subjecting us to images of our deity being boiled, over and over again?

If someone in the public eye has done something that weakens their case or exposes them as a fraud, this can certainly be in the public interest. But simply pointing out their indiscretions is not – we need to hear what this implies in terms of some larger issue. Without that context and analysis, the media is feeding a large and ugly beast. We know the public want sensation. And it’s likely that they’ll want more of it if we keep giving it to them. But perhaps, we should be encouraging them to want less of it.

Redistribution of wealth

Apologies for the silence here – I didn’t get around to writing a column for the Daily Maverick this week, and also haven’t blogged, mosly because it’s quite difficult to do these things when bloody agents have entered your home – twice in the space of two weeks – and taken all your stuff.

There’s a lovely hashtag that you’ll often encounter on Twitter – #middleclassproblems – and this is certainly one of them. It’s a middle (and upper, or course) problem to have stuff worth stealing, and also to have a public platform to use in order to complain about it. So far, though, it’s only been stuff, and stuff can be replaced. People can’t (well, individual people – people in general are sadly far too easily replaced). So yes, it could have been far worse.

But it’s nevertheless rather annoying, especially due to the time lost. Time waiting for people to install more security, time taken to replace my passport (including the time waiting for that damn baby, whose parents were in the queue ahead of me, to keep her eyes open for the photograph), and now, the time lost due to not being able to do proper work without a laptop at home.

And worst of all, for me, is that for the first time, I would seriously consider devoting resources to getting out of here, into somewhere in the 1st world. It’s a difficult thing to say, or to discuss, but at some point one simply gets tired of the uncertainty, of the waiting to become a victim.

The problem is that poverty and desperation don’t know who you are. You can be as committed to social equality as you like, and have spend X hours trying to help built this country into what it could be – and it could all be for naught. And I can’t blame the housebreakers for that – if I was in their situation, I might well be resorting to the same choices.

And this is because choice, or choices, can be quite an alien concept if you’re living hand-to-mouth. It’s a middle class problem to even be able to talk about choices, and that’s a genuinely sad thing.

To add to the sadness, it’s difficult to escape the feeling that South Africa is on some sort of precipice. Not the Night of the Long Knives sort of thing, as someone hyperventilated on a friend’s Facebook wall, but one involving a significant shift away from the liberal and democratic values the post-94 South Africa is rightly proud of.

The Malema hearings, the Mogoeng confirmation (or hopefully not), and the vote on the POI Bill are all pretty big deals, and depending on how they go, could give rise to legitimate pessimism about our immediate future.

I’ll say more about Mogoeng next week in the Daily Maverick, but in the meanwhile, please don’t rest, or depend on others to sort these problems out. Civil society retains a significant voice, but far too often, we stand on the sidelines and wait to protest decisions already made. Sometimes you can see them coming, and the time to raise your voice is now.

Kill the Boer: Afriforum vs. Malema

As submitted to The Daily Maverick.

It’s easy to demonise those who disagree with us when discussing emotive topics like hydraulic fracturing, or the ongoing Equality Court case involving Afriforum and Julius Malema. But while it is sometimes true that sincerity takes a back seat to ideology or fanaticism – or even kickbacks from corporate lobbyists – it’s far more often the case that demonising an opposing point of view serves merely to reinforce your own confidence that you’re right and everyone else wrong.

Kunene can eat his sushi as he likes

As submitted to The Daily Maverick

It is easy to ridicule Kenny Kunene, given how well he fits a certain nouveau-riche stereotype. However, public reaction to his extravagant spending has verged on the hysterical, aided by the condemnation of his “sushi parties” by Vavi and Mantashe, as well as certain columnists in our press. But I’m not at all convinced that he has done anything wrong – or that he is not simply being used as a scapegoat to distract voters from the everyday extravagances of some of our elected officials.

The boer is dead (#uniteZA)

Following the murder of Eugene Terre’Blanche on Saturday, plenty of good pieces discussing the relationship (or lack thereof) between the murder and Julius Malema’s constant singing of that charming folk-ditty “Kill the boer”. And while government officials on the scene were quick to insist that the murder had nothing to do with Malema’s singing of that song – that it was instead motivated by unpaid wages and general frustration towards a man who had a history of not treating his farm workers too well – we should also be wary of believing that simply because it’s a more comfortable explanation, and one which results in less worry for South Africa’s immediate future.

Because even if the workers were aggrieved at unpaid wages, or poor working conditions, it may still be the case that those frustrations were encouraged to reach boiling point via the “endorsement” for the the murder that they perceived Malema to be offering. It’s an easy answer to blame Malema, and it’s an easy answer to think he has no responsibility in this case.

And as usual, the easy answers are probably incomplete answers. As many others have argued, it’s a time for calm and sober reflection. As with the #speakZA campaign a couple of weeks ago, bloggers in SA have been rallying for calm, and for SA to not let the death of this horrible little man cause any unnecessary friction. Under the banner of #uniteZA, feel free to join by tweeting and/or blogging the message below:

South Africa stands at a crossroads – a time in which racial tensions run high and the world is focused on us. Neither the people of South Africa nor the country itself can afford to have negativity and irrational outbursts rule our daily lives.

To that end, UniteSA is an attempt to bring people from all corners of our nation together in a call for peace, calm and rational thought.

Various ministers have called for restraint as has President Zuma – certain organisations have chosen to use this time to push a political agenda and we appeal to them to allow the authorities the chance they need to resolve the issues.

We urge the people of South Africa to express faith in the police force and the justice system at this time.
We call upon the ANC to rein in Julius Malema appropriately and urge him to behave responsibly.
We call upon the AWB to continue to act responsibly after the tragic death of Eugene Terre’blanche
We call upon the National Government to plan for protection of farmers as they worry about their futures
We express our solidarity and empathy for those who have suffered because of crime and corruption in our country

We are far stronger united than we are apart.


Blogs for free press

Bloggers For a Free Press

I’m sure you’re aware by now of the slander campaign launched by the ANC Youth League’s spokesperson Nyiko Floyd Shivambu against journalists they perceive to be against the Youth League. This campaign is especially directed against City Press journalist Dumisani Lubisi. You’ll remember that he was instrumental in exposing Julius Malema’s interests in various companies.

The move taken by the ANCYL is disturbing, especially their response to the letter written by 19 of the country’s most influential political journalists, asking the ANC to distance itself from the actions of the Youth League and Floyd Shivambu, where they basically told these journalists to sod off. More than that, Shivambu then threatened the journalists who refused to run his slanderous story.

This is a definite step towards dictatorial rule. I for one, am not willing to sit idly by as people in our ruling party flagrantly infringe on media freedom and other Constitutional rights.
I’ve invited a number of South African bloggers to publish a message to the ANC and the Youth League on Wednesday, condemning the actions of Shivambu and calling on them to distance themselves from such practices. We also reminds the ANC of the vital role played by the the press in the liberation struggle.

If you’re a South African blogger and are interested in joining, then drop me an email at Alternately, you can reach me on Twitter (@ComradeSipho). I’ll fill you in with
further details and put you on the SpeakZA mailing list.

If you’re on Twitter, the hashtag is #SpeakZA. Let’s get the word out there.
Sipho Hlongwane